20 Apr

Writing Rituals

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Process, Writing

Today, I’d like to talk about writing rituals–you know, those little things we all do to get us in that writing mood.

What are writing rituals?  They can be anything, as long is it sets the mood for writing.  I read once about a writer who literally wears different hats when she’s writing or editing.  Another writer I’ve heard of lights a candle when it’s writing time.  The writing rituals can be as simple as a turning on your iPod or using a specific pen or notebook.

My writing ritual is that I always use an unlined notebook and a fountain pen.  Something about writing with a fountain pen makes me feel like I’m channeling the great women writers of old, like Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters.  I also have certain playlists I listen to for different projects.  Right now I’m listening to the GLEE soundtracks because I can always use more glee in my life.

Why are rituals important?  Rituals signal to your brain “OK it’s writing time now.”  Just like having a bedtime routine can help kids get in the mindset of going to sleep, writing rituals tell your inner writer that it’s time to get in that writing frame of mind.  Writing rituals are also a great way to pamper your inner writer a little bit.  Scented lotion can be soothing, a pretty potted plant on the window sill can make you smile, a favorite poem or reading passage can inspire the writer within.  Whatever you choose, having a small writing ritual can help set the mood for writing.

What if your ritual becomes too routine?  Every so often, it’s good to shake things up.  Break your routines and do the exact opposite of your writing ritual.  This can be a challenge, because stepping outside our comfort zones can be uncomfortable and scary.  But a healthy dose of fear can be energizing–exciting even–so don’t shy away from breaking your rituals now and again.  Take a risk!

Why it works:  All writing is the act of making rules, then shaking them up.  When we write, we establish rules for our readers and the reader gets lulled into a comfort zone with the story.  When we shake up those rules (give the story structure a twist, introduce a new character, add a new plot element) it gets the readers’ attention.  They sit up and start listening again.  The same is true for our inner writers.  When we shake up our writing “rules” it grabs our inner writer’s attention and helps it engage with the work again.

Homework: If you don’t already have a writing ritual, think of something that would help get you in the writing mood and do it today.  Establish a ritual so that in a couple of weeks, when you break it, your writer will respond.

If you do have a ritual already, I want you to break it today.  Do something outside your routine, something exciting and maybe a little bit daring.  (I know some of you already did this for the first writing sprint, but that was weeks ago and it’s time to shake things up again.)  Remember, it doesn’t have to be a huge change; it can be just one small, meaningful thing.

Please share in the comments because I’m dying to know: Do you have a writing ritual? What is it?  What small thing did you do to break out of your comfort zone today?


14 Apr

Outline Techniques for Those Who Hate Outlines

Posted in Creativity, DIY MFA, Process, Writing

This past weekend in #diymfa chat, we had a great discussion about outlines and whether we plotted out our stories in detail or wrote by the seat of our pants.  As you can imagine, the responses were as varied as the number of people in the chat.

This discussion got me thinking about my own writing.  I’m not a seat-of-my-pants writer–not even a little–but I hate traditional outlines.  Something about long lists (I.A, 2.b–it’s all Greek to me) just doesn’t work for my visual brain.  I think it’s my background in design that means those outlines are too logical and sequential for me.  To that end, I wanted to share some plotting devices that have worked better for me.  These techniques help me organize my writing without killing the spontaneity.

Mind Mapping

I give a detailed How-To for this technique in the first DIY MFA.  Unlike traditional techniques, this type of outline forces you to look at a topic from multiple different angles. It also makes it easy for you to see an entire project in one glance, rather than having to read through line-by-line to get a sense of the full story.

How to Apply this to Fiction: Try mind-mapping your story or novel by making each of the main branches as chapter topics or major events in the story.  The sub-branches can be scenes that sub-divide these larger branches.  There are no rules with mind-mapping so feel free to doodle and make notes (I use thought bubbles and speech bubbles to add notes to my mind maps, as you can see in the image.)

Here’s a mind map I used to brainstorm the very first DIY MFA back in September.

Story Maps
I love subway maps.  What can I say, I’m a New Yorker so it’s in my blood.  Recently, I started outlining stories using New York-style subway maps.  Just as subway lines intersect, different subplots weave in and out of the main plot thread in a novel or short story.  I like to think of writing as a journey so to me, this idea of mapping out a story works for me.

How to Apply this to Fiction: The different threads in a story are in different colors.  Scenes in each thread are marked as subway stops.  If a scene applies to more than one story thread, then it becomes an intersection.  What I love about this technique is that when I sit down to write a scene, all I’m writing is a “dot” of the story.  Dot’s aren’t big and scary; they’re cute and round.  They’re just dots for crying out loud.  Somehow in my mind, it seems a lot more manageable.

Tip: If the subway concept doesn’t work for you, think of this as a road map instead.  The main story threads are interstates, subplots are smaller roads and the dots are the stops you make along the way.

Here’s a subway map I designed to use for DIY MFA.

Scene Cards

This technique is super-portable, which is one of the reasons I love it.  Take a stack of index cards and make one card for each scene you know needs to happen in your story.  What’s nice about this technique is that you don’t have to write the scenes in order (you can move the cards around), and you can always add more cards later if you think you need them. 

How to Apply this to Fiction: On each card write the following information.

  •  Scene Title: Something easy to remember like “Scene where Jimmy falls from the tree.”
  • Characters: Who’s in this scene?
  • Events: What happens?
  • Setting: Where are we?
  • Purpose: Why do you need this scene? (Character development? Important plot point? Reveal important information?)  This last one is important because if you can’t think of a purpose for the scene then you have to question whether you need the scene at all.

Some computer programs actually have an index card function built in (Scrivener, for instance) which is nice because it makes editing and moving the cards around even easier.  I still like the old-fashioned method because it means I can grab a handful of cards and take it with me anywhere.

Homework: Choose one technique and try it out. Then tell us about it in the comments or on twitter!


13 Apr

5 Tips for Keeping Up with Writing and Life

Posted in DIY MFA, Process, Tips

It starts with the best of intentions.  We set big goals.  Thousands of words a day.  Finish a novel in a month.  You name it.  It’s all done with the noblest ideals at heart.  Trouble is, sooner or later we all get burned out.

Today, as we near the midway point of DIY MFA 2.O, I wanted to talk about keeping up: both with DIY MFA itself and with your writing in general.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when the goals get big and there’s a lot at stake.  I know.  I’ve been feeling that way myself lately.  Here are some tips that help me when deadlines loom large and the stress monster rears his ugly head.

1) Work in short spurts.  I’ve talked about the Pomodoro app before, but this idea of working for short spurts then taking breaks has worked brilliantly for me.  When I know I only have to focus on something for a short while, it makes it easier to ignore interruptions.  I let the phone go to voicemail.  I let emails sit in my inbox just a little bit longer.  And it’s OK, because it’s only for 25 minutes.

2) Take breaks.  It’s really easy to work through your breaks, especially if your “work time” before that was only a short spurt.  Even so, take a few minutes every hour or so to get up and stretch.  You’ll want to stretch your arms and wrists (to prevent repetitive motion injury) as well as your legs, since writing is so sedentary.  Also if the bulk of your work is done at the computer, take a minute or two to look out the window.  Not only might it give you some writing ideas, but it can help rest your eyes and prevent eye strain.  Most importantly, taking breaks helps you rest your brain.

3) Save some writing for later.  Don’t stop working at a logical stopping point.  If you wrap up your writing day too neatly (at the end of a chapter, or short story) then it’s all that much harder to pick it up the next day.  Instead, try stopping in the middle of a scene or even in the middle of a sentence.  If you’re writing a goal number of words, stop when you hit that goal even if it’s in the middle of a thought.  When you come back the next day you’ll find it that much easier to jump in and keep going.

4) Avoid binging.  As with anything in life, moderation is key.  If you’re starting to feel like you’re going on a writing binge, dial back the intensity.  Better to write 200 words per day for a week, than to write a thousand in an hour and not write for another two weeks.  Remember the fable and aim for slow and steady.

5) One thing at a time. This goes back to the idea of the short spurts and Pomodoro.  One of the reasons that technique works so well is that you focus on one thing at a time for a set number of minutes.  Not only is this good for maintaining focus and efficiency, it also helps maintain sanity.  These days, everyone tries to do eight million things at once.  Talk on the phone while they surf the web and walk across the street.  Check email and work and tweet all at the same time.  I prefer to do one thing mindfully at a time, give it my full focus and when I’m done, I focus on something else.

Bonus DIY MFA Tip: Use Your Idea Bank

I know it can be tough keeping up with all the prompts this time around.  DIY MFA 2.O is not like the first DIY MFA where all you had to do was read the posts and the homework can get overwhelming.  If you can’t get to a prompt, don’t worry.  Just write it on a slip of paper and tuck it away in your Idea Bank.  Just like saving pennies for a rainy day, you’ll be saving writing ideas for when you’re ready to use them.

This week, at our Facebook page, I’ll share pictures of the new Idea Bank I found at a thrift store.  Feel free to share pictures of your own Idea Bank too.  I’d love to see what you come up with.

Homework: Today your homework is to give yourself a break.  It doesn’t have to be a long break–30 minutes will suffice–but it needs to be a break nonetheless.  Do something fun.  Something relaxing.  Something that’s not writing.  This is not optional.  You are not allowed to work and call it “fun.”

When you’re done doing your something fun, please share it in the comments or on twitter!  I’m dying to hear all about it.


12 Apr

Prompt Builder

Posted in DIY MFA, Process, Prompt, Story, Writing

This writing tool was inspired by the board game Clue. You know, the game where you win by saying something like: “It’s Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the revolver!”

As a toy designer in a past life, I had the opportunity to tease apart different games and see how they worked on a fundamental level.  The game Clue was always one of my favorites because it essentially comes down to telling a mystery story using only four elements: a character (one of the suspects), a situation (the murder), a setting (one of the rooms), and a prop (one of the murder weapons).

That got me thinking that storytelling really boils down to two things: a character plus a situation (preferably one rife with conflict). The props and settings add detail to make the stories unique, but ultimately, a character in a conflict-filled situation is what makes a story. From that idea came this prompt builder technique that I’ve used with various groups of students.

What I love about this technique is that with one index card and one standard die, I can have over 1,200 possible writing prompts at my fingertips. Also this writing tool is completely customizable so if you write a certain genre, you can tweak the different lists to make them more applicable to your own writing. I myself have devised various versions of this activity, including one for fables and fairy tales to use with younger students, and one mega-set that has over 28,000 possible combinations!  Talk about prompts that will last a lifetime.

Today I’d like to share with you the pocket-sized version.

Instructions: Copy the four lists below onto one index card or into a pocket-sized notebook (make sure to include the headers “character,” “situation,” “prop,” and “setting”). Roll the die four times to determine which item you’ll use from each list. Now write.


1.  Child Prodigy
2.  Driver’s Ed Instructor
3.  Shopping Mall Santa
4.  Clerk at MegaMart
5.  Father of 12
6.  Wedding Planner


1.  Runs into an Ex
2.  Visits a Psychic
3.  Discovers a Secret
4.  Has to Hitchhike
5.  Loses a Bet
6.  Flunks a Test


1.  Red Shoes
2.  Evidence of a Crime
3.  Superstition
4.  Regret
5.  Mask
6.  Someone Else’s Spouse


1.  Wedding
2.  Funeral
3.  Middle of Nowhere
4.  Fancy Hotel
5.  Rowboat
6.  Beach


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